Track 3: Valiant Hearts

[Major Spoilers for Valiant Hearts]

Javy: This is the third episode of Game Chats! which is a WORDcast about video games where two critics talk about a single game. And today we’re going to have myself and Carli Velocci talking about Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which is a Ubisoft downloadable game. It’s made in UbiFrame. It’s very—it looks like a PBS cartoon, actually, is what I was thinking when I was playing it.

Carli: I could see that.

Javy: Okay Carli, so tell us a little bit about where you write, what you write about.

Carli: Okay, um, so I usually write for two main publications: Paste Magazine and KillScreen. I recently reviewed Valiant Hearts for Paste and that’s about it, yeah. Nothing too splashy.

Javy: Okay, cool cool. So tell us a little bit about—what did you thinking about it? Because you played it before I did and beat it a LONG time before I did.

Carli: Not too long, but I mean it was definitely one of the more interesting titles I’ve played this year. Granted, I haven’t played that many but this one definitely stood out among like a lot of different things. I mean, it definitely had some problems but overall it was definitely fun…well, I wouldn’t say fun. I guess it was fun to have a story that was that emotional and kind of more complex than you would think, just based on “oh you’re a solider and you’re running around doing random things.”

Javy: Yeah, it’s been interesting on Twitter seeing, after the game’s been released (‘cause it’s been out for a week or a week and a half or so), seeing everyone’s opinions just come down the Twitter feed. A lot of people I know just don’t like it, and I love it and…I think the thing is that I’ve been playing it in bits—like half an episode each playthrough—and not trying to beat it in one or two sittings because I think it would definitely get pretty repetitive pretty quickly. But playing it like it’s a television episode…so like a television series it allowed me to digest some of the more emotional bits instead of just cramming them altogether and feeling like the game was cramming it down my throat.

Carli: Yeah, that’s true.

Javy: Did you play it episodic or uh, did you—cause you played it for review, so did you have a deadline?

Carli: Yeah, I mean I didn’t play it all at once because…just for time’s sake, um I didn’t really play it episodic either. I guess it took me say two or three sittings to complete, so I guess I was in the middle of those two lines of the spectrum. I’m not entirely sure which one would be more preferable, but I guess doing it in spurts or episodically would be better because yeah, some of the puzzles when I was playing would get kind of frustrating and it would take me out of the game, kind of.

Javy: Some of them were so obtuse.

[Both laugh]

Javy: Especially in the third episode where Karl—I believe is his name—is in the camp, and at one point you’re in the shower room and you pick up this object…and it looks like a pair of overalls or a whip. And I couldn’t tell what it was, couldn’t tell what I had to do with it, and the hints weren’t helpful at all. The game also has a pretty nifty hint system where carrier pigeons come in like every other minute or two when the game senses you’re stuck on something. And you can option, it’s an option. You can choose to access it or you can just try and figure it out yourself, and at that point none of the hints it’s gave me helped me at all. So there are some parts that are certainly frustrating, and they feel like…like the game is trying to *prove* that it’s a game, if that makes sense, that it’s trying to prove that it’s a traditional game. Like “We’ve got a good story going on and wanna focus on that, but we promise we’re a video game! Here’s some random puzzles!”

Carli: Yeah, I think I read another review of the game, um, I think it was in The New York Times and it was basically saying the same thing, where it’s like we have all these great elements, this great story, and uh oh, we’re being made by Ubisoft and we’ve got like this audience. We need to throw in these actioney different bits, like with the German…Boss guy, like the mad scientist guy. And that was so strange to me because the entire game you have like y’know you have Karl who’s on the German side, and then you have his family who’s on the other side. It’s a very human aspect to see those two sides clash but then you have this fricking mad scientist who is going around blowing things up and cackling and—I’m pretty sure he’s got a mustache—and it’s very kind of cartoonish and very kind of…simple, I think. Very cheap. Like I felt kind of cheapened by his inclusion.

Javy: Yeah, yeah, the baron guy.

Carli: Yeah, that guy.

Javy: I read a bunch of reviews that talked about the uncomfortable, odd mixture of that cartoony simplicity that you’re talking about and the tragedy of the game. Uh, like those two things can’t coexist within the same game, because the game definitely has moments of joy and jokes that revolve around the stereotypes of various nations. Like in some of the camps you’ll see some of the troops drinking a lot, eating sausage, and it’s just very…jovial right before the shit goes down, like before stuff starts blowing up and people die. And to me, I didn’t mind it that much.

Carli: Me either.

Javy: Because y’know…I feel kind of like a hack using this defense because it’s used so often, but the uh “real life” defense, y’know, real life has tragedy and comedy—moments of outrageousness and moments of just really…sad, just awful stuff happening to people who don’t deserve it. And I think the game captures both aspects of that and that’s something that’s really hard to do, but it worked for me.

Carli: Yeah, I mean there are some kind of bumps in the road when combining those two things but I generally thought that…like the first couple of episodes I felt a little off put by the cartoonish moments, but over time as the story got darker and I guess things became more grim and just really depressing, I was more…thankful for that kind of stuff ‘cause you can’t just have something that’s a straight tragedy. You gotta have some bits of comedic interruption so that you don’t feel like you can’t even complete the game. I definitely think that the comedic tone, in some aspects, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because if you can balance the two and it does very well, I think, after like the second episode? Like the third episode might be my favorite—with Karl in the prisoner camp.

Javy: Yeah.

Carli: And he’s solving this very meticulous puzzle—which made no sense to me; I was just playing around and that’s how I eventually solved it—but he’s going around and you can see all the people kind of interacting and there are some parts that are more jovial, like you said, and some aspects that are kind of…like when he’s escaping and he’s just trying to hide in that one cabin with the woman who kind of helped him get out. And it’s kind of this really interesting…um mesh where sometimes there’s these nice comedic moments and in the background there’s a war going on and Karl wants to get back to his family and on the other side of the continent there’s these other people who thinks he’s dead, and so it just makes the thing very complicated but in a good way.

Javy: How do you feel about the episode…the game pulling…because I remember from the beginning of Act 3 is that the game pretended that Karl was dead, like the game has this habit where two or three times where YOUR CHARACTER IS DEAD! Oh no! And then it switches to someone else’s perspective. And I think once would have been enough, but the game does it two or three times.

Carli: It does.

Javy: And I was kind of disappointed that it didn’t set that expectation and then subvert it…like at the very end Emilie, one of the characters, dies and it’s a very moving moment but it doesn’t arrive out of the “oh, well they didn’t kill this character this time,” like if it had happened three-fourths of the way through the game instead of the very end where it’s expected. Like I knew that someone was going to die, and I thought it was going to be the dog.

Carli: Yeah.

Javy: Who’s the best game character this year, I think. So far.

[Carli laughs]

Javy: Do they even give us a name for him?

Carli: Y’know, I don’t think so. I just kept calling him Dog.

Javy: He actually looks like my dog, the dog my girlfriend and I just adopted, so I just kept calling him (or her!) Stella because that’s our dog’s name.

Carli: Aw. So cute.

Javy: But yeah, there are definitely some areas where it makes compromises, I think, not only in gameplay but in story as well to pad out the length of the game. But at the same time I didn’t necessarily mind it. Uh, I really didn’t want it to end, like I’ve seen some people complaining about how long it is and how it goes on. And it does go on, and there are definitely two or three places where it can end in like act III, but y’know we’re talking about a war that went on for a while, just dragged on and made everyone miserable, so I feel like it’s kind of justified.

Carli: Yeah, so I definitely agree. I loved reading those kind of anecdotes they would give you in the beginning of certain parts that were like: This is this…this is where you are, and this kind of battle happened here and this many people died and this was the kind of tone of the battle where it went on for months and months and months, and everyone got really sick and there were this many causalities. And it definitely added this very real aspect to the game…especially the parts that were more cartoonish, ‘cause you would have Emile just running around the camp but it would give you this anecdote that was “oh this is actually what’s going on around it.” And going back to what you said um it’s this idea that the war went on for so long and there’s so much to cover. And like, a lot of people don’t really cover World War I. World War II is kind of the go to “we’re gonna make a war media-thing.”

Javy: It’s the Call of Duty, Band of Brothers thing.

Carli: Yeah, exactly. No one talks about World War I. So to have all this kind of historical background is very helpful and enlightening, and kind of padding it out with all these different things allows you to experience more of those kind of facts and anecdotes and they just, yeah, they just wanted to tell a story about a war and that war happened to be long and full of things to tell.

Javy: I think that’s interesting that you brought up World War II and media in just general concern with war, and especially games. How do you think about Valiant Hearts in the context of other games about war, specifically maybe World War I and World War II. I guess World War II because, as you just said, there’s not that many World War I games except for like some obscure strategy games maybe from Paradox Interactive. What do you think of that like, in comparison to something like the original Call of Duty or Battlefield, or just run-in-gun games?

Carli: I mean, if you think about what kind of games depict a lot of time they’re shooters, and I don’t want to keep ragging on shooters in the way a lot of other people to do because there’s nothing wrong with shooters; it’s just that, y’know, they tend to be monotonous and a lot of the time they don’t really go into I guess more of a human story emotional aspect of those wars. It’s a lot of war setting, so you can kind of shoot people and maybe you get a cool locale out of it. And with Valiant Hearts, they didn’t really go that route, which is what I really appreciated about it. They wanted…they were like “we have this era of world history that no one really touches and we’re gonna try and tell as much of it as possible through the eyes of [I think like] four people.” And they definitely took on a lot, I think, because there is so much to tell, but I think it definitely paid off because it does provide a more unique perspective that a lot of games don’t talk about.

Javy: Yeah, I agree with that and still in the context of, this isn’t a World War One/Two game, but I kept thinking of Spec Ops while I was playing Valiant Hearts because both of them are trying to cover the same ground, to certain extent they’re trying to talk about the horror of war, uh, that sort of Apocalypse Now version of war, that madness, what humans do to one another when they’re commanded by other humans who are in power, but there’s something about it…I think what I like about Valiant Hearts the most…and it’s captured perfectly in the scene where Emile is in the mines and he meets the German solider only to end up later helping kill him, uh, is that the game talks about the main characters’ complicity in a war that they don’t really want to be partaking in without sticking a gun in their hands. Spec Ops tried to talk about that complicity both as the player enjoying violence as entertainment and uh the complicity of people in that violence even if they don’t necessarily want to be there, but it does that by putting a gun in the player’s hand and making them kill tons of NPCs. Here, you don’t really kill that many people in Valiant Hearts. I’d say that most of the time um you’re witnessing someone die by other circumstances, but there are parts where you’re indirectly responsible for the death of a solider or someone else, and it’s pretty awful and effective, and the one bit that we are directly responsible for is when Emile seals fate by killing the general ordering them to do that suicide rush in the last battle. It’s a horrible moment, in a good way. It affected me pretty profoundly, much more than Spec Ops trying to do the same moment at the middle of its game uh you have to shoot…uh you have a choice to shot a quote-unquote bad guy and put him out of his misery.

Carli: Yeah, it’s definitely interesting because Valiant Hearts doesn’t give you a gun. It doesn’t…like you get a certain item for each person. Like Emile has the little shovel. Uh, I forget the American guy’s name.

Javy: Uhhhh Freddie! It’s Freddie.

Carli: Yeah, Freddie. He’s got his pliers so he can cut through wires. Everyone’s got their little own thing, but none of them have items that are directly hurting someone else, which I found interesting because all the background characters had guns or some other kind of weapon, and there were times when you had to work like a turret or a canon, but most of the time you were just kind of helping other people, and kind of just trying to get from one side of the battlefield to the other. You weren’t really, y’know, tasked with killing other people, and that’s something you’d think would worth it to do in a war—I mean, granted there was stuff, like some indirect deaths. Like if there’s some German firing a machinegun, and then you throw a rock or something at the wooden plank and then those would come down and crush the guy…y’know, that’s—he’s probably dead. But that’s not the main focus of it, and so it’s interesting like that you directly kill someone is, like you said, in the final battle is this like the war coming to a head, almost. Like Emile becoming just tired and distraught because he thinks…he has no attachments to his family anymore. And at that point the war’s been going on for years, and I’m sure that was the same way for a lot of soldiers who probably thought the war was just never going to end. So it definitely gave that death more weight, as like this was a man at the end of his wits. Even the general who was ordering the mission was desperate, so there’s way more…complexity to those deaths versus y’know in another game where you’re doing in the war is like gunning down enemy soldiers and that’s about it, really.

Javy: And touching on Emile’s death, I think the saddest bit of that is that he’s actually dead long before the little execution scene…it’s just like how accepting he is of it, I guess.

Carli: Yeah.

Javy: After what he did, for the right reason…at least what I would say was for the right reasons.

Carli: I definitely think so.

Javy: The whole march, and the game does it so beautifully when the soldiers are walking him toward the shooting post and he sees Freddie…and Freddie is there for real, but y’know, like hallucinations…eh not really hallucinations (it’s kind of a weird word in that context) but images of the dog, and Karl, and his daughter, and…was it Anna?

Carli: Yes.

Javy: Anna or Anya. No, Anya is from Wolfenstein.

[Both laugh]

Carli: I think it was Anna. You were right the first time.

Javy: Yeah, but uh the game…doesn’t treat death lightly, and I have a real respect for that, for when a game does that because so many games…and again this isn’t necessarily knocking, like you said, shooters and such…it’s just rare to see a game take death as a serious thing, as something of consequence, as something that affects people on a profound level beyond moving a plot.

Carli: Right, and it’s kind of interesting because you think of how many actual soldiers died in World War I, and it was like hundreds of thousands, and there’s so much weight behind just like one death at the very end of the game. It really puts into perspective everything that happened in World War I. Well, like this one person died. Think about everybody else affected by all those other soldiers, like they’re not just statistics, they’re people.

Javy: With families too, so it wasn’t just them that was affected—it’s like Emile’s family. That’s an aspect of the game I liked very much was—

Carli: Yeah, me—

[Carli and Javy wait for the other to speak.]

Carli: Sorry, you can go first.

[Both laugh]

Javy: Oh, uh was how it handled death even if…in spite of the cartoonish moments, I never felt like the cartoonish moments tainted those deep, profound moments. Whenever death was on the screen, it was a sad affair to be taken very seriously. It wasn’t about improving your kill/death ratio or getting a sweet, grisly kill in Sniper Elite, which I’ve been playing, uh so bullet cam stuff. It’s just all about affecting the player. It’s rare to play games, especially games put out by Ubisoft or any major developer and publisher, that focuses just on that…on giving the player an almost purely emotional experience.

Carli: Yeah, which is…it’s almost sad because y’know this is a game that goes against the criticisms that are plaguing pieces right now, and it goes against a lot of them. So I wish that more people would play Valiant Hearts if only so that the people making the games would understand that this is what people want: more kind of story and emotional impact versus violence. And I mean, there is violence in Valiant Hearts, but it’s like we’ve been talking about, it’s a much different kind of violence.

Javy: Yeah.

Carli: Like, I think of the final battle where you’re running through the trenches and the bodies are piling up and you have to, at one point, hide behind a pile of bodies to evade gunfire.

Javy: Oh yeah.

Carli: And that was…I had to pause the game for a little bit because that felt really wrong to me. Like obviously it’s there for a reason and it definitely added to the game as a whole, but just like being Emile and hiding behind all of your comrades that have just fallen on the battlefield was just…like, yeah it makes perfect sense that Emile would go on and do the thing he did, especially after thinking he’s just lost his entire family.

Javy: Yeah, yeah, I…I also had to pause the game during that point ‘cause I had a little bit—I wouldn’t say I had a major problem with it or anything. It’s just I had to pause it because—“wow, really? The game wants me to hide behind that.” And this is a huge pile of bodies too

Carli: Yeah.

Javy: The game makes it look like a mountain of them. Um, and I think the reason that bit worked is because they save all the truly awful and gruesome imagery here for that last battle. You don’t really see any blood until that last battle scene, and it’s everywhere. It’s like they put everything at the end—the crescendo, just to make you feel so awful and identify with Emile and to get him and get what he’s going through.

Carli: Yea, that’s very true. Like the entire time I was always kind of…I wrote this down because I take notes when I play games, and I wrote down a couple of times how y’know there’s supposed to be hundred of thousands of soldiers yet you only saw a handful throughout a level, and especially if you’re going through enemy lines and you’d have to get by maybe a dozen German soldiers, but then at the end, you’re being pounded down by gunfire and you’re constantly joining other groups of your comrades and they keep getting gunned down and the piles keep getting larger and it’s a huge contrast from the rest of the game where…y’know there was kind of a slow build in terms of the kind of imagery and the gruesomeness and the violence of it. It did start out kind of like everything is green and there’s a small handful of soldiers you’re fighting with and the locales slowly get more desolate and the battles get more bloody and the stakes become higher and it just kind of, yeah, it just comes to a head in the final battle where you’re like “What have we done?”

Javy: It’s very much watching this pastoral green place that’s very natural turning into the wasteland. We get to see that happen on the screen uh and I think the game does a good job doing, as you say, doing a slow buildup to that, like showing you. It doesn’t try and hurry through that…you spend a lot of the first chapter in the forest or the fields, and it turns into that hellhole at the end, all those bodies everywhere. And it’s not in the desert, but it’s hard rock everywhere you look. It’s a very hellish image, that whole level. [Pause] So did you watch the credits or stay after the credits? [chuckle] “stay after the credits” like we’re talking about a movie.

[Carli laughs]

Carli: You’re gonna have to remind me. I can’t remember.

Javy: There’s actually a post-credit scene where Freddie’s on a ship, and it’s a naval battleship, and I think what they’re hinting at is that there is going to be more. I don’t know if that’s more DLC or y’ know, like a whole new fully fledged Valiant Hearts game that takes parts either—because the war didn’t end in what we saw. It technically wasn’t over.

Carli: Right.

Javy: Like I’m not sure if we’ll see more World War I or…because World War II isn’t that far off—I mean, between World War I and World War II the timespan isn’t that great—if we’ll see Freddie and a bunch of new people in World War 2. How would you feel about that? To me, this is a game I would feel odd about with a sequel. I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but I would feel very strange if I saw the trailer for the next one at like E3 or something.

Carli: It’s weird to think about because it’s kind of a standalone game where you have like…I mean, you follow a few characters but the main character is Emile and he dies at the end of the game. So it would be kind of strange to continue on, but at the same time I think if it was done like with the thought in mind in making the best game they could instead of just making a sequel…then it could be done, especially if you follow Freddie um going through either the rest of World War II or going to different places in World War Two because World War II definitely takes places in a lot of different other places, so it could be interesting to explore more areas of Europe or maybe Japan where things are going down, but yeah, I’m not entirely opposed to it but it has to be done correctly.

Javy: Yeah, it’s something that I wasn’t immediately turned off by. That’s what I’ll say, which is rare for me when I hear that like a game I like is getting sequel because sequel screw-ups are so common. And also, I’m a little nervous because even though this is a branch of Ubi that usually gets games right; this is the branch that did like Beyond Good & Evil, Rayman Origins, and the King Kong game from way back in the day. I really that King Kong game!

[Carli chuckles]

Javy: It was really good for what it was. And ZombiU, I think. They did ZombiU too.

Carli: I heard that was pretty good, but I never actually touched it.

Javy: It’s good, but I don’t know…I’ve just been so disappointed with some of Ubisoft’s stuff lately with the feature creep and the climbing of things. I was so happy we didn’t have to climb any shit in Valiant Hearts.

[Carli laughs]

Javy: I don’t know if you could actually stick that in there, but I could see some suit saying that.

Carli: I mean there were some points where I was sort of like “I have to dig again?” But it definitely wasn’t as bad as “c’mon Nathan Drake, do I really have to follow you doing this again?”

Javy: Or synchronizing at the top of some random building, but I did enjoy some of those puzzely sections even if they were all over the place, like the digging, I really enjoyed digging with Emile’s shovel—especially when it turned into this kind of maze with the artillery.

Carli: Yeah, those were hard.

Javy: They were super difficult. I thought it was creative too, just from a design standpoint, because again it’s the combination of the macabre of war with this sort of PBS cartoony extravagance, y’know, it’s a very Bugs Bunny moment for Emile to be digging all over the ground, dodging these rockets that can go off at any moment, and it works. I don’ think it should work, but it does work for me.

Carli: It definitely works because it’s another instance of I guess that danger of the war, because if you are given a shovel and then in the beginning you’re doing these kind of inane puzzles, like getting the guy’s socks washed or whatever.

[Javy groans]

Carli: But y’know then you’re digging and leading a group of people through a maze of all these missiles that are in the earth and if you touch them, they explode. And, I mean that’s kind of a problem in some areas where the mines weren’t dug up correctly. So, it just adds like another historical realism to the game even though it is kind of…like you said, a PBS cartoon.

Javy: Yeah, I actually hadn’t thought about that aspect, like the mines still being in various countries…because you don’t get news reports about that anymore. A couple of years back it’d be about every other week or so you’d see a headline about someone losing a foot to some…a mine in some foreign country that was just there, dormant for a long time. Um how do you feel about gamefying tough subjects like…’cause this is definitely…I think it’s…war is kind of a subject that the gaming community has become desensitized to, when you consider how many games—especially in the early 2000s—we put out about World War II. But what do you think about gamefying something as grim as that?

Carli: There is definitely…I don’t really see a problem with it. It’s just a matter of, yeah, there are games that treat it as…they romanticize it or they do something that kind of, like you said, desensitizes you to the idea of war, like when you’re going and gunning down all the people…it’s going to impact you in some way. And, y’know, there’s nothing wrong inherently with making a game with a very serious subject, it’s just that a lot of times more mainstream, more well-known titles have added to this discussion being like “We’re gonna go in and nuke some people, it’s gonna be awesome,” when it’s really not. A lot of people died. A lot of people have been really heavily impacted by these kinds of incidents that have been going on. And it just mostly takes something like Valiant Hearts to remind people that war is not..it’s not all fun and games, shooting someone down, cheering “yay I got ‘em,” it’s not about the highest score. It definitely can be done right.

Javy: Yeah, and I think that Valiant Hearts did it as best as it could. I even…as far as the story goes, because the characters are caricatures, but they’re caricatures I cared about at least, like that I came to….because I don’t think a character has to necessarily be superbly written for you to care about them ,y’know, ‘cause I cared about what Emile was going through, what Karl was going through, what Anna was going through with her father…because these are all sorts of stories that are connected to the war, like these are stories that happened in some fashion. Obviously, the details have been changed and the cartoony element wasn’t there, but these are things people have gone through before: being disconnected from their families, thinking that their family member who was a soldier died when in actuality they didn’t, so on and so forth. And I think as a game that’s trying to tackle those themes, and considering where we are with games development-wise and especially considering that it’s an AAA game, it does a really good job…one of my favorite bits is how it takes shots at people in power, like generals and such. Because you’ll always see generals, people sending Emile and his comrades to die, uh they’re like drinking and being buffoons—just generally being assholes in front of their soldiers and then sending their soldiers to die. And I felt like it was cool to actually have a game that actually cared about the sort of story to incorporate that into it. Because most of the time when there are superiors in games, they’re just giving you orders and you’ll following them. And it might be tough, like this is the tough choice that’s going to get you killed but it is the Right Choice with a capital R Choice according to the game’s narrative.

Carli: Yeah, which is why it’s interesting that at the very end he kills the general, so it’s kind of like an ultimate backlash against that kind of…I guess, the need to be in power, against war as a whole kind of thing—where it’s tearing apart of families, it’s killing innocent, it’s tearing apart the countryside. It’s so much more than “we’re gonna go in, and we’re gonna kill all the Germans” or whatever. Germans are people too! Granted, that’s why I didn’t really like the Baron character because it took the realism out of it. Same with the driving sequences—they were very peculiar to me.

Javy: Aww, you didn’t like them? [chuckles]

Carli: I liked them, but afterwards I was just like “what was that?” I think I enjoyed them only because of the music.

Javy: Yeah.

Carli: And the kind of choreography.

Javy: Yeah, it was a rhythm game. That’s what it felt like I was playing, like Guitar Hero or something.

Carli: Yeah.

Javy: And you had to do it to the music, and I enjoyed ‘em all excpt for the last one, where it’s actually a boss fight with that huge tank. I didn’t really like Anna’s later sequences, or the tougher versions of her sequences later on where she has to rescue Karl, because…it might be because I’m not good with those games. I’ve been playing another one called Entwined with the uh sticks….it’s like a doublestick…er, twin sticks version of Guitar Hero, and I just hate that.

Carli: Ugh.

Javy: But Anna’s sequence, I died…well, not me, poor Karl died about seven times at the end before I got it right.

Carli: Yeah, those were really intense sequences, especially since they subtly got harder as you went along. Like in the beginning it was just hitting the down key or whatever, but then you have to hit these two keys, and then do this, and this, and then Karl’s gonna die if you mess up. And I was panicking…like “oh no, I’m gonna mess up. I’m gonna die. I’m gonna kill Karl.”

Javy: Aw. Yeah, and it’s unfortunate because I think that comes into the game/story struggle we’ve been talking about. Because if that happens, if Karl dies two or three times—maybe not the first time—the impact of his death or impending death isn’t nearly as profound. It just becomes a trial & error thing. You stop worrying about whether or not Karl will live or die because he’s lived and died in these moments seven times already. I think there’s a trouble with that.

Carli: There definitely it is. It’s why I wasn’t too fond of when it broke away from the puzzle aspects…like there were times when I was doing a puzzle or whatever, and it would just throw this new thing at me and I would have no idea how to do that, and yeah, it’d be trial & error. And there were some sequences, like I think it was with Freddie and the flaming um like contraption that you had to move around.

Javy: Oh yeah.

Carli: Those were definitely all kind of trial and error, and I think I did those things four or five times before I got them. There were definitely points when the puzzles didn’t have nearly as much impact as they should have because they were trying to go for “we’ve got to actually make a game! We’ve got to do this!” It definitely felt like a project where there were two different sides that were kind of going at it.

Javy: And it really….even though that insecurity shows through, because that’s what I call it: game insecurity. And it might not be like the development team felt like, but what it feels like to me in-game: “We have to demonstrate that we’re a game.” And I think it’s kind of a miracle that the game works as well as it does and it’s still just as profound impacting even though it has those moments with those puzzles, those frustrating, aggravating fire puzzles.

Carli: There are definitely some aggravating aspects, but I’ve played puzzle games…they’re definitely not my favorite genre because it definitely takes a while to get into one kind of puzzles it’s going for, so you’re always going to mess up a lot at the beginning. I think it works because those kinds of I guess more troublesome sequences aren’t really common. Like, there’s a lot of really great sequences that surround those ones where you’re like “Ugh, this doesn’t make any sense to me. What am I doing? This is ridiculous.” But then they’re padded out by great sequences with the dog or when the dog saves you, or like you save soldier and it feels really good. So, I think over the time we just forget about those kinds of weird anomaly sequences.

Javy: Yeah, because the game does have more good puzzles than it does boring or frustrating ones. And even the worst ones, besides the frustrating ones, there’s really like four or five of those and they’re basically fetch quests, like the moment you enter the room you know what you have to do. You just have to go find the right object or the right basket to stick the dog in and um if you haven’t played the game that sounds really unfortunate, sounds really gruesome, but I promise we’re not doing anything horrible to the dog.

[Carli chuckles]

Carli: The dog is doing it on its own.

Javy: Yeah, the dog is fine.

[Javy chuckles]

Carli: Thank god.

Javy: Oh yeah, I would have been super upset…sorry Emile. Okay, on that note, we’re about out of time. Carli, do you wanna say anything else about uh Valiant Hearts?

Carli: Um I’ll guess say that it’s not a perfect game, it’s not gonna make everyone happy, but I definitely think it’s worth looking into just for how unique it is and how emotional it is, and generally just what it’s going to make you feel.

Javy: All right, Carli. Where can readers find you on Twitter?

Carli: They can find me at @revierypone.

Javy: All right, well thank you very much for joining us!

Carli: Thank you for having me!

Javy: Bye readers!

Carli: Bye!

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Track 2: FTL: Faster Than Light

Javy: Hello! We are here at Game Chats! I’m talking to Bryant Francis.

Bryant: Yo.                    

Javy: Bryant, where have you written?

Bryant: I previously wrote for http://www.Jacehallshow.com, which a blog was tied to the Jace Hall Show on IGN. Currently my writing can be seen over on sevencut.com where we’ve got some good writers together and are putting together some good work, and we’ve been lucky enough to be featured on This Week in Video Game Blogging. I was very happy because then Gamasutra reposted that week’s thing; I was like “Yay, I made it to Gamasutra!” So I can be seen on SevenCut right now.

Javy: All right.

Bryant: And on Twitter @RBryant2012.

Javy: Awesome. I’m Javy Gwaltney; I’m one of the two members of Game Chats! And today we’re going to be talking about FTL: Faster Than Light.

Bryant: Wee.

Javy: What?

Bryant: [pause] Wee? Because we’re…we’re going faster than light.

[Javy laughs]

Javy: FTL was one of the first huge Kickstarter games, right? Like it had a Kickstarter campaign. It got funded, and it’s just been a really big success for those two guys, ‘cause two developers did it.

Bryant: Yes.

Javy: Very small. They were both from uh…can’t remember—I think it was 2K. And then they just decided they wanted to do their own thing. So Faster Than Light is their game, and it’s a rouge-like, and it’s what I wish the latest Star Trek game that came out was like. The latest Star Trek game is terrible. Don’t play it. FTL feels like it nails that sort of exploratory space with aliens and galaxies and getting in—not dogfights, I guess, but massive battlecruisers fighting one another.

Bryant: I think the difference between FTL and other games that try to chase the Star Trek dream is two ideas. The idea of the crew, which by not making you a single person on the crew and you are the entire crew—literally you could lose all your party members at the front and have all new party members by the end, and you’re still the same entity. You’re not actually the captain of this ship. You’re more like the ship itself. There’s actually a weird little thought experiment you could have about that.

It’s the crew and, believe it or not, I think it’s the whole shifting…it’s the power management. Literally shifting your power around the ship that combined with the other things we discussed—the combat, the exploring, the negotiations. I think that’s what actually makes us, reminds us of Star Trek because those are the two things I always thought separated Star Trek the show from all the other science fiction from around the time, which was emphasis on the crew and every single encounter they were in there was some emphasis on negotiating that power, which is a strange thing to focus on, I think, but it’s really one of the things that adds that feel for me.

Javy: Yeah, so it’s really interesting that you’re talking about like the actual ship being an entity itself where you’re controlling everything on it because I’ve read some reviews before I came online and a lot of them were making Picard references, so y’know, “Well, you’re the captain and it feels like you’re ordering your crew mates to raise the shields, uh divert shield energy or weapons energy to engines so you can escape faster.” So it’s really interesting that you havea different take, that you’re actually controlling everyone—you’re the hivemind of the ship.

Bryant: Oh god, maybe this is secretly a game about the Borg.

Javy: Heh, the Borg game. You just don’t realize it!

Bryant: Yahtzee always has funny reviews. His review on the game was actually very recent. He said it’s the kind of game where you sit back in your chair and tell someone else what to do, like “Hey, shift power to the shields, open fire—or hail them.” I thought his observation was interesting, given that no physical crew members are ever identified as the Captain! I’m actually reminded all of a sudden about for the description of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, the way they always describe the ship as the seventh cast member…or like the ninth cast member—oh fuck it I don’t remember.

Javy: Whatever that number is.

Bryant: The “nth” cast member. Replace “n” with the number. I think it’s an interesting way to read the game is that you’re playing that entity that is the nth cast member, which sort of has its own personality and inhabits the decisions of everyone on the ship. And I think that’s kind of a nice thing to toy with. Um, the resurrection bit, the Edge of Tomorrow bit, the permadeath bit, that’s the next thing to mull over in relation to that.

Javy: Yeah, that’s like the consistent quality of all rouge-likes, y’know, learn through death. You lose your shit…y’know, you earn all this shit and then you lose it, and what you’re really getting is experience. That’s the real value of playing; you’re learning the game’s rules and systems um and it’s not just special equipment that lets you break the game, that you can kill literally everything, so I think that’s the appeal of games like FTL and The Binding of Isaac. And I like those games about the same. They have kind of the same feel except that the Binding of Isaac is a creepy little Zelda game in a basement, with religious overtones. So, what else besides the genre that FTL is in, like it’s an exceptional rouge-like game, but what else besides the rouge-like bits make it so interesting? It’s a pretty big hit, like, they were comfortable enough with it that they’ve been having sales on it all the time—just like Hotline Miami. So it’s had some success.

Bryant: Yep. Well, I think the thing is we have to go back to the original—like rouge-like is obviously a reference to the game Rogue, which was a procedurally generated RPG from…before I was picking up a Gameboy, quite possibly. FTL is not like other rogue-likes because it is a tactical game, a strategy game, a turn…in essence it’s a turn based game where every jump you make is more akin to Final Fantasy in some ways than uh dungeon crawling. And I think the itch is scratches is not just an itch for navigation or reflex-based challenges but a tactical…thinky kind of game.

[Javy laughs]

Javy: Thinky?

Bryant: It’s not for…instead of who has the fastest finger in the room, it’s sit back and see everything and understand the variables that can come into play. And I think that through those instincts that’s what you pick up, that’s what rouge-like is trying to train you on with those instincts. And I think that it’s trying to train you…whereas other games like Rouge were trying to train you about those reactions, FTL is trying to train you about systems and the management we discussed earlier. I think I have stopped…I have now played FTL to the point now that I can snooze through the first couple of star systems, though you really need to make upgrades by star system 3 or you’re screwed. And there are all these shortcuts now that I just didn’t know at the front, like if there’s a fire on the ship I do not waste time telling my people to put out the fire. I just vent the room and tell them to go head somewhere else. Uh, also fun fact: the little challenges that FTL presents you that until you go read up online or until you just experiment with it…you don’t know how to handle them right away. For instance, stupid fact: I did not know that the Zoltan cruiser, which is my current ship of choice to try and get a game-winning run, I didn’t know it had airlocks at the back of the ship! I kept trying to vent it with the airlocks at the front and that only kind of sometimes worked. Obviously that would be a poorly designed…I actually thought they wanted to make a ship that was locked so tight like the, weirdly enough like the SR-2 Normandy from Mass Effect, um, that there was only one airlock. And I was completely wrong on that front. And then I discovered the doors later and was like “Oh I feel like an idiot.”

Javy: Well that’s one of the things I like about the game too (while we’re talking about tactics) is that you really have to pay attention to everything. The ship’s design isn’t just an aesthetic thing. It’s also tactical, like you say, with where the airlocks are um just especially the squares too. You have to know pretty much where every section of the ship is without looking for it. You have to know where the engine room is, you have to know where the armament room is, so you can send your crew mates if something gets damaged and not looking around with your little mouse. But there’s also….I found it really interesting that you can pause in battle when you’re battling with another ship. And it’s a little bit like the Final Fantasy quality you were talking about earlier where you have to think several moves ahead, even though there aren’t technically “moves.” It’s not like Chess or You Go and then They Go, it’s just when can the two of you launch weapons? It’s just delays on weapons. So it’s interesting that they have that pause function as like a major part of battle; I’d argue that it’s the most important part because then you can look at what rooms they have if you have the correct technology to peer into their ship.

Bryant: Yeah, I don’t think you can win the game without using the pause button, because I’ve noticed now that in my battle with the final cruiser now…you use that pause button to literally precision-time the strikes you need to make. And like if you have the cloak you need to use it to time your cloak. You need to like pause, breath, plan, move. Then pause, breath, plan, move. There’s a game I saw at E3 that had a similar mechanic, but it wasn’t turn-based; it was based off the Iridium engine. It’s called Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian, and they were demoing that game, and it was the same function. “We are building in a pause button not just so you can go get a sandwich but so that you can tell your people where to go next. Also Knights of the Old Republic, another older game I recall using that system very well. So that’s actually beyond the rouge-like, that’s just a mechanic that invites thinking and planning.

Javy: I find it interesting in FTL because one of the big inspirations behind this…we’ve said Star Trek, we’ve said Firefly, maybe a little of Battlestar Galactica…just sort of those sci-fi/space operas—but being able to pause in mid-battle sort of uh goes against that because in those battles captains have to make decisions really quickly, like on their feet.

Bryant: Well here’s the question: does it? I’m about to get weird on you for a second.

Javy: All right, get weird on me.

Bryant: Is not the pause in FTL equivalent to however much time the camera and editing allow a commander in those narratives to make a decision? For instance, Star Trek…I think Star Trek abused this—the amount of time that the shields would actually go down in Star Trek is never consistent, and can either go really fast or really slow…it always went down to what the writers needed to pace the scene according to the experience they were designing, because film mediums and interactive mediums are both experiences that audiences have psychological reactions to. I could dig in longer into why camera, pacing, editing, blah blah blah affect whether I’m going to laugh or feel tense at something. In a sense, the FTL pause is just using another tool inherent to the genre. Which is the characters need to have X amount of time to make X much decisions as we will write in. And like everything else they’re handing it to the player, so like Picard has as much time as the writers will give him. Since these are mediums that have time constraint and an interest curve, there is a tool that writers have available to them, which is kind of innate, intrinsic, and not discussed openly ever in the show or talking about the show or in the characters’ motivations in the show, but it’s a tool used in the experience that I think has been handed to the player—just as we’ve handed the player control of the weapons, control of diplomacy, control of their buying power, we’ve handed them the ability to control the pacing of their fight the same way that in Star Trek the pace of the encounters is being controlled there as well.

Javy: Okay, so is the player the writer and the captain at the same time then, would you say?

Bryant: We’ve given them tools that were previously hidden, I would say. They’re not so much the writer as they are…they’ve been granted a power—Picard had both the power of his literal background as a character and whatever the writers, like literally the editing of time itself around the scene. We’re not making the player the writer, we’re just giving them a tool previously held to the writers. I think that’s the best way to phrase it.

Javy: Okay, I gotcha.

Bryant: And that maybe complete gobblygook but it’s one of those things that when I think about it I don’t think there’s actually that huge of a difference between Picard and the player, in that respect. I don’t think Picard has to think on his feet faster than the player does because Picard as a fictional character in a medium designed to deliver an experience has the same tools the player has…we just handed them to the player.

Javy: You did get weird on me, but I follow you. You did not lie: you got weird on me.

[both laugh]

Bryant: It’s cause…I think it’s cause we keep making these comparisons to sci-fi things. I think we sometimes forget that film and TV are designed and planned for audience reaction just as games are. We’ve just inherited this entire set of language about it that we assume “oh when Picard did this and this thing it was his own reality,” but from a designer/thinker point, that was crafted, executed—everything down to the cuts and edits had just as much of an impact as that space bar. Y’know, the space bar is actually more akin to using Final Cut in the film world. The space bar is the same thing as a camera cut; you pause…you’re manipulating the perception of time to affect the outcome of events. And I think the most important thing, and this actually comes into the different between film medium and interactive medium, is that we’ve taken that thing that was previously just held by masters and handed it to the audience. I might have just completely repeated myself, but I really liked the Final Cut analogy.

Javy: No, no, there was some new information in there. Some retreading, but new information, so you’re good.

[Javy chuckles]

Bryant: So if I could actually make a left turn on something I think is one of FTL’s underrated accomplishments and it’s a reason the game won awards. The writer, I forget his name, was nominated for like 30 awards…and FTL has interesting writing and sense of humor going on—

Javy: Tom Jubert.

Bryant: Tom Jubert! Yeah. What do you think about the game’s writing? I think there’s three overall concepts we talk here; there’s the writing, its sense of humor, and its moral decision making.

Javy: Yeah, we need to talk about—actually let’s save the moral choices for last because I read an interesting article on that before this cast that I want to talk to you about. Let’s talk about the humor because FTL is a very funny game, and its subtlety funny too. Some of it is just nods to old Star Trek episodes. Most of it’s during the interactions with other planets or abandoned space ships or when you fuck yourself over by deciding to investigate a space station, and there turn out to be like aliens or robots and you’re just like “aww fuck.” It’s humorous. It’s frustrating because you screwed yourself over but at the same time there’s sort of a grim gallows humor about it.

Bryant: It’s kind of…I would love to play FTL as a board game with a DM. I feel like I should be at PAX; I should have like this guy with rim glasses at the same table as me and I make a decision and they just look at it and go “Well you did this and giant spiders just murdered one of your crew members.” And I think everyone at the table would just laugh.

Javy: Yeah. Exactly.

Bryant: And on my own by this point I’ve stopped laughing a little bit, but everything written in the game could be written like it’s being said by a DM. I think like…I think some of the other funny comes from like the random things that can happen on your ship. I think there’s almost something inherently funny to what you’re doing, like sometimes people catch fire and you feel like you’re watching little ants run out of oxygen if you decide to vent your enemy ships—

Javy: It’s the sadistic Sims thing, right?

Bryant: Yeah.

Javy: Where you like put ‘em in a pool and take out the ladder and watch them..y’know, perish. It’s the same thing.

[Javy chuckles]

Bryant: God, I love starving people of oxygen on my ship. I just…it never gets old.

Javy: I’m gonna put that in bold Bryant. What you just said in bold.

Bryant: It never gets old! I never panic. Put a bunch of Mantis on my ship? Don’t care just… [mimics the sound of air being sucked out of a ship] out the airlock! Oh god but the Advanced Edition added the new enemies who remove air from the room so they can’t be hurt by the airlock. They are scary dangerous. I haven’t had too much trouble with them yet. I actually managed to recruit one of them, and it’s like “wait, I can’t put you in the same room as anyone else, so where am I gonna stick you?” Security. Just on the cams. It’s really funny. There’s just like this one…your oxygen bar I permanently set at 95% and there’s this one guy who’s just like “I am removing all the oxygen…but I am on your side.”

Javy: Did you ever teleport him aboard an enemy ship?

Bryant: I haven’t made…I’ve only used the teleporter once and it went very badly.

Javy: Do tell.

Bryant: It was basically “Well, I’m gonna use the teleporter. I’ll just send the crew.” And then everyone on their ship just punched them to death. It does not work well with the Zoltans because most of your crew only has 75 health. You need a lot of guys to make the teleporter work, which is weird because in the original edition you needed teleporter to win the game, according to people I’d talked to, because you need the right amount of scrap, and in Advanced Edition I noticed they upped the value of scrap you get from destroying ships—especially in the endgame. And if you get the scrapbooster uhhh and a couple of other…well, you’re set for days, but in the old edition there was a point where you have to pillage them, like you can’t destroy them you have to—and it’s like “What the fuck?” That’s so hard!

Javy: Yeah.

Bryant: Because I don’t think the combat’s not like Age of Empires or Warcraft where there’s tons of intricacies to navigate there. You’re just navigating dudes punching each other, and I don’t think it’s very fun. I’m not a fan of that mechanic, actually. I’m not a fan of the successful boarding phase.

Javy: Yeah, it’s not very fun and it’s always a crapshoot whether your crew will survive or not. And I feel like that’s some—that’s a good portion of FTL that I’m just not crazy about. The balance between skill and luck. You could be the best FTL player possible and I think you can still lose at least half the time you start up the game. You just don’t hit the right resources, you don’t find the right ships, you don’t find a station in enough time, you don’t have enough fuel, so on and so forth—

Bryant: God, the most annoying one I’ve encountered so far was, I encountered an Ion planet, which I think are new to the advanced edition. And it took out my guns AND my shields. And so…they just lit my gun room on fire.

Javy: Ouch. Oh no.

Bryant: And that was it! There was nothing to be done. Evacuate the room, try to vent it? Nope. Okay. The shields come back up, but I still can’t take out there weapons—I had a really good ship! But the mechanics can turn on you so quickly. There are these strange little combinations where this, this, that [makes tomato squishing sound] like a bad fire in the wrong sector takes out your door control and you’re screwed. Then you have to put out the fires by hand and you just can’t do that. That’s ruined me like twice but I’ve learned how to strategize around it a little bit.

Javy: It’s a little frustrating because on paper I want to like that, I think that’s a great idea—forcing the player into these Kobayashi Maru situations over and over, because I’m sadistic and masochistic, so I like that. But when you actually play it and you’re dying constantly, and you play let’s say an hour or hour and a half getting the best ship that you’ve gotten so far. Like it’s a magnificent ship, you’ve lucked out and you found four or five crewmates that are awesome—and then you lose everything. And there’s nothing you really could have done about that. When that happens, I just get so mad, like FTL is one of the few games where I’ve just ragequit. I don’t do that often. I’ve only done that recently in Dark Souls and FTL.

Bryant: I kind of did it in League last night but that’s because someone was telling me I should quit the game. No, this was two nights ago. Unrelated! That’s PVP.

Javy: Yeah, that’s just some guy being an asshole. So, what do you think of the luck/skill ratio? Does it bother you? Do you think it’s fair?

Bryant: I’m starting to hit a point now where I don’t like it because I’ve nearly killed this friggin’ endgame ship three times now and I don’t like that—like you said you could really be the best player and just get fucked—and I wish, I think there’s a point where with that luck/skill ratio the balance is slightly on the wrong side sorta. There needs to be a point where your skill can overcome the luck, and it does not exist. And you’re just waiting for that one run where you’ll have the hacker and all the guns AND the mind control although…would mind control be helpful in the endgame? I guess if you used them to destroy the systems or take out the guns by having them blow them up. That’d be useful.

Javy: And it’s also that the last run to the last ship is so grueling, like it is this gauntlet, where you have to fight ship after ship after ship and hope you find a station. It’s just really frustrating to play like an hour to two hours and get there and just lose everything.

Bryant: There’s also still random encounters along the way that are just completely off the wall, like what the fuck just happened? Like I found a quest and did the quest until I got to the end of the quest and suddenly found myself at a station fighting a ship and that planetary defense gun was online, the one that will just uh, the Fuck You Gun, as I like to call it. It’s the one that the fleet has if they catch up to you. And it’s there and it’s like “what uh—“ [explosion sounds]

[Javy chuckles]

Bryant: And you think you’re winning! And then just—and also I think the ship was like one sector level higher than it was supposed to be. I remember thinking “wait I’m not supposed to be fighting people this powerful.” And then it was done, and it hasn’t happened since. I will say this: the only thing I absolutely hate and is terrible and absolutely ruins my playthrough like every time—the giant spiders encounter. That thing is statistically designed, unless obviously you have a rock crew member that you can send in and stomp the spiders, to take out one of your crew members. There is no win against the spiders. I’m pretty sure if you look in the game there’s like a 75% chance that this outcome will happen. Although, from a writing standpoint what I do enjoy is…I went to, there’s only a handful of quests to get the ships have a specific script that you can survive…like you can look up online and play in advance. I do enjoy that every other random encounter, there is no guaranteed survival ordeath. It could go either way, like there’s this one that’s “red button or blue button?” and I’m like “this must be part of a challenge because I haven’t encountered it before,” so I look online and either of these can lead to doom. So I’m like “shit.”

[Javy laughs]

Bryant: So the game can just randomly decided to kill you, or not.

Javy: Yeah, and again that’s something I love on paper, that’s a concept I’d really be gung-ho about and something that, if I was a designer, I’d probably go for. But as a player playing it, I get really angry. Since…since we’re talking about writing, let’s talk about the moral choices. So what moral choices did you want to talk about? Are there any in the game that stick out in your mind?

Bryant: To start out: I love that the moral choices are not—there is no Bioware morality meter. There is no Renegade or Paragon, obviously. There are just decisions…where what you do has an impact on people in the universe but has zero…there is zero long-term consequence for all of it. So the only way you can make decisions…there is no good/bad reason to anything. Because you could be playing the crew like you’re the Enterprise and you’re trying to save everyone or you could play it like you’re the crew of the Serenity and you’re just doing what you need to to survive, or you could play like you’re Klingons and ruthlessly pillaging throughout the galaxy. Um, so there’s the slavers, there’s the federation convoys that you can destroy or bribe to delay the fleet, there’s the Mantis prisoner dilemma. There’s all these little moments where the game doesn’t judge you for any of it, although sometimes it may get snarky with you based on what you’ve done, like you’ll try to help some people and accidentally blow them up. And it’ll just say “you try to clean up the scrap without thinking too much about what just happened.” Um but I like that on the road to victory it says that you might do some things that you’re uncomfortable with. Especially the mercy option. Like so many ships beg you for mercy but unless…my only rule is if they’re offering me a lot of fuel, I’ll say yes. If they’re offering me anything else, I’ll say no because it’s always more advantageous to blow them up.

Javy: Yep. ‘Cause of scrap.

Bryant: Yes, scrap and…well unless they’re offering a weapon right then and there, there might be a weapon in the loot.

Javy: Yeah, which even if you’re not gonna use that weapon it’s still worth a lot of scrap. I find that…I’m actually more comfortable Zoltan weaponry, so I find that I trade most of the weapons that I pick up for scrap to get other stuff.

Bryant: And I think that’s true to the Star Trek thing. Star Trek was great about making all these episodes where these characters had to go through some really tough decision making and it never expressed a firm…I mean, it had some liberal underlying morality—and I do mean liberal in the most traditional sense of the word, like John Locke liberal kind of deal, Western type thinking—um I think it does a good job of letting the player have those encounters and have their own little, their “Did I do the right thing?” moments. And then what’s great is that they’ll get to do it again…go try the other option and they’re not going to get a solid answer because the game doesn’t want…the game does a great job of not wanting to force you into one decision or the other.

Javy: Yeah, before this I read an article, a piece on the slavery option in FTL and the author, Chris, doesn’t come out and necessarily present an argument against it in his article, he’s most just observing it and I wanted to read his summary—or his conclusion because I thought it was really interesting: “While the game never addresses it explicitly, FTL presents a universe in which slavery is simultaneously morally reprehensible and strategically significant.” What do you think about that?

Bryant: I think it’s interesting because there’s some zero gain options in the slavery. The slavery mechanics are some interesting mechanics. On the one hand, you encounter slavers and they say “hand over your crew or else,” there’s no reason to hand over your crew members. You should always fight because you need crew members and you need the scrap. There is no reason to participate in slavery. Sometimes they offer to let you buy slaves…uh obviously that’s a way to get a crew member for cheaper than what the stores will offer, but when you fight them, 90% of the time…there’s only been a few times where they wouldn’t make you a surrender offer and then offer the slave for free. So you’re kind of forcing them out of the slave game by saying “hey free a slave and we’ll let you live.” And the other slaves are obviously condemned. There’s no mechanic to free all the slaves; you cannot be Abraham Lincoln. The way I feel the it casts the player is that you don’t participate in slavery so much as you can just be…a part of its system, like you can skill slaves and you can buy slaves but you can’t obviously trade in slaves and the game puts you in all these positions where it wants you to work against the slavers. There’s rarely a time where you’re cooperating with slavers.

Javy: But see, you said “participate.” Isn’t buying a slave participating in that?

Bryant: Yes, but…er…I think it’s up to how you interpret it because I feel like you’re buying a slave but on your ship how do you judge if they’re still a slave? Because doesn’t the text also imply that you’re buying and freeing them?

Javy: I can’t remember to be completely honest.

Bryant: I’m at the point where I just skip past the dialogue sometimes. Y’know..1,2,3….asshat bonus! But it does put them in the same exact position as being on the ship as part of your crew. They’re equal from that regard. You’re buying them, but you could also be freeing them, which I still haven’t read enough think pieces on like when that happens in movies to decide if it’s part of the system or not. Like when you buy a slave and free them, or you still participating in the system? I don’t know…quite where I land on that.

Javy: I think that’s interesting that you bring up sort of the former/possibly still slave on the ship because that says something about the sort of nebulousness and vagueness of the characters and of FTL because you don’t really get to know your crew members. They’re basically just names, races—alien races—and stats. What do they bring to the ship?

Bryant: Yeah, you can’t romance anyone either.

Javy: I know, right? That’s so sad. Can’t have a Garrus. You know how much that upsets me?

Bryant: I name crew members Garrus and Shepard.

Javy: And then they die!

Bryant: Oh god I think my favorite…because this is Mass Effect …. I did a run where my Ship was called Lover’s Wreck, with Shepard, Garrus, and Liara which is also what I called my squad in Mass Effect 3.

Javy: What do you think of that vagueness in the writing? Is that a problem that maybe there aren’t assigned traits, like in Rogue Legacy and, more recently, Watch_Dogs? Would it better for it…for something to say maybe like “colorblind” or “enjoys pizza on Wednesday nights but no other night,” y’know just some wacky stuff—would that be better?

Bryant: I’ve read Jubert’s blogging on what it’s like to be a designer in his position and I agree with a lot of what he said where you really, really, really wanted to actually step back from elements like that where you as an author are trying to dictate things to the player because I feel like one of the things that Jubert’s writing—and I’ve forgotten what else he’s written—and I’ve put these thoughts together by reading about what else he’s written…I think that right now FTL lets you feel in the gaps in so many ways and it’s just that nice…it’s not fucking obtuse, it’s not like saying “you make it up!” It’s just saying hey…it’s like we poke you and your reaction is to interpret the poke. We give you this piece of information and build intent on it. Actually, funny enough, we can reference Ian Bogost’s wonderful article “Shaka, When The Walls Fell,” which is about Star Trek. And he talks about the separation between these forms of communication and how the game is presiding intent; it gives you an arch form of this science fiction thing and you either ascribe…we as an American culture, a Western culture have like…the Rock are Klingons and the energy things are vague energy things that show up in science fiction and the Mantis are the bug enemy. Um, and we can fill in the gaps on these things but we can also subvert and manipulate our expectations by…by the way when you get Mantises names Claudia for some reason. I don’t know why. You get a lot of Mantises, Rocks, and Engis who have girl human names, and I think that’s an interesting subversion. I think what FTL does instead of adding all these specific things to create a lore and a universe…it leaves you with this canvas that you just sort of paint on. I think it’s a good decision to let you paint on that canvas because If you try to add anything else it would just eliminate some of its strengths, like the weird writing, like the moral choices, and I think it’s better that it pulls back. I don’t want to know why the rebels are evil. Some of the rebels you encounter are like “hey I don’t want to fight you but also what would I be without a war?” So there’s some light implication about who the rebels are and so there is some inherent political machinations of its own, but I think anymore and it wouldn’t be as interesting.

Javy: Yeah. We’d get bogged down in all that stuff. But even then, still, I just wish—and it’s weird because I don’t have this problem with something like Fire Emblem but I guess those characters have more characteristics applied to them anyway—I just wish there was a little more to get me attached to his crew…I just don’t like seeing them as X-Com units. I want something more to get attached to, but I do get the reasoning. I do understand.

Bryant: I feel like the act of letting you name them is more powerful than giving them backstories, because, like I said, I made Lover’s Wreck. I called my ship The Bastion, filled it up with my roommates. I’ll call it Wintersmith and fill it with my crew from Wintersmith. (My film)

Javy: Didn’t you fill a ship with a bunch of game critics and they all died?

Bryant: Yes. Repeatedly.

[Javy laughs]

Bryant: Because I won’t run with a ship once. I’ll run with it repeatedly. I’m still running—I have a save right now and will get back to it after this call. It’s filled with my E3…I’m putting people I met at E3 in it, so my friend Carli from The Escapist and Mike from Automatic Zen, yeah I’ll do that. And then sometimes I’ll make up characters—I just think that act is more important than giving backstory. I think it’s just such a good decision about what to give the player agency over. And a lot of people will just go with the default names, but for people who like wanna kill their friends they’ll go with those names, but sometimes people say “I wanna go on an adventure with my…” uh hang on, let me reverse the camera real fast. Um. So I will name them after everyone up here on my shelf.

[Bryant pans the camera over a bookcase featuring such figures as Chell from Portal and Gipsy Danger from Pacific Rim]

Bryant: Like I’ll call it The Normandy and put Gipsy Danger and Chell…Knifehead…Master Chief, I have three Master Chiefs (it’s a long story). I’ll do that and—

Javy: I’m super excited to transcribe that. “Bryant takes us over to his shelf. He shows us Chell. He shows us Gipsy Danger.”

[Javy chuckles]

Bryant: Yeah, totally. So I think there’s something more gamey in that, something more interactive in that—letting us fill in the backstory by deciding…like I said, the fact that I name it so often with my real life organizations is a reflection on me as a human being, and what organizations I put importance in.

Javy: Okay, that’s cool. That’s a fair answer. So before we go one last question: is it an honor to be on your ship even though it’s doomed, most likely? Like…let’s be generous and say there’s an 80% chance that your ship is doomed, is it an honor?

Bryant: I only bring the best people on my ship with me.

Javy: So they can die.

Bryant: Only the best.

[Javy laughs]

Bryant: If you’re on my crew, we have served together in combat in the real world someway.

Javy: And now you will die.

Bryant: You won’t. Really. Oh wait, we didn’t talk about Edge of Tomorrow, the R=rouge-like movie!

Javy: Oh yeah. Oh well.

Bryant: If I can include one interesting thought on the rouge-like before—Sorry, I know we’re running over a little bit.

[MAJOR SPOILERS FOR EDGE OF TOMORROW]

Javy: It’s all right, it’s all right. It’s cool.

Bryant: One quick thought on The Edge of Tomorrow. So Edge of Tomorrow suffers from a plot problem that, and I don’t know if or how um (and it’s not a giant problem I still think the movie’s a great, fun watch by the way) so I think it’s interesting in how to interpret how FTL would handle it as well. In Edge of Tomorrow, tension is supposedly raised when Tom Cruise loses his ability to go back in time, but it is effectively also nullified because we understand the movie must end, there must be a happy ending of some kind. It might be a pyrrhic victory but this will not be a shaggy dog ending where it ends and “oh it was all for nothing.” We know that Tom Cruise is gonna win in some capacity. So the second they took away the rouge-like energy, the movie loses some momentum. What I would challenge: what if instead of the movie taking away his power, had him take something back with him like battle damage or a monster that goes back with him. They would have essentially added to their own reset mechanic. I wonder if FTL, and there are obvious rouge-likes that will let you keep things after you die, I think that you could argue Majora’s Mask is an interesting example of this; you always have to reset the clock but then they give you the ability to keep something, like some things can go back with you. I wonder if for rouge-likes as a genre if there’s room to experiment with what goes back with the player besides knowledge. Because we know knowledge and sometimes items, but what else can we send them back with that’ll affect the next run? That’s my Edge of Tomorrow tangent.

[SPOILERS OVER. YOU CAN STOP AVERTING YOUR EYES]

Javy: All right, it’s a good tangent to end on. Thanks for joining us Bryant.

Bryant: Thank you.

Javy: Be sure to play FTL if you haven’t yet, reader. It’s an interesting experience

Bryant: And hit me up at @RByrant2012 if you wanna join my crew.

Javy: Yes. Follow Bryant on Twitter. He is funny. All right, goodbye everyone. Thanks for joining us.

Bryant: Goodbye.

Track 1: Fire Emblem: Awakening

*MAJOR spoilers ahead for Fire Emblem: Awakening*

Javy: This is the first, well, this is the test run of Game Chats!, which is a WORDcast about video games where we have two critics talk about a single game. And today we’re going to have myself and Kaitlin Tremblay talk about Fire Emblem: Awakening. That is how you say your last name, right?

Kaitlin: It’s Tremblay, but I forgive you.

Javy: That’s good. I should have asked first. Oops.

Kaitlin: It’s totally cool.

Javy: All right.

Kaitlin: Okay.

Javy: So let’s talk about it. So Kaitlin, I played the game about a year ago for the first time—like a year ago this week maybe. It’s an anniversary

Kaitlin: It’s a big deal!

Javy: It is a big deal. And you got it what, last month?

Kaitlin: I think so.

Javy: So how long did it take you to play through it—your first run?

Kaitlin: Uh, a month! I think. I got it, well as soon as I got my 3DS it was the only game I bought because I was like “I’m pretty much buying my 3DS for Fire Emblem at this point.” I’ve played it on my bus commuting to work, I play it at my boyfriend’s house, like I sometimes *try* to play it during work. But, uh, yeah, I pretty much play it all the time. But I’m a slow gamer and really invested in the storylines and the friendships, so I really take my time with it.

Javy: Yeah, it takes over your life. It’s definitely *that* game that you sort of just take everywhere, and the fact that it’s portable makes it that much worse.

Kaitlin: Yeah, exactly, like so many of my friends know who Chrom is…

Javy:[laugh] Yep. All right, so how would you describe it? Genre-wise? Y’ know, like both story genre and game?

Kaitlin: Okay, I would describe it in terms of game genre as RPG/strategy, kind of, actually almost exactly like Shining Force just with like the Bioware…hookups kind of inserted in.

Javy: That’s a good way of putting it: hookups. Not relationships! Just straight up hookups!

[both laugh]

Kaitlin: Exactly.I think it was Meg Townsend that said when you have the kids or whatever it’s a whole new level of hookups.

Javy: It is a whole new level of, oh, it’s like Inception hookups.

Kaitlin: Yeah, so I’m looking forward to getting to that point because I didn’t let many people marry in my first playthrough. Um, so my second playthrough is all about the hookups and seeing who will produce what spawn.

Javy: [laugh] Spawn. So the story itself is just general sorta dark fantasy. Uh, y’know, bad things are happening, monsters are coming—there’s also some political intrigue in there I guess where you have to fight different kingdoms. One of the main characters gets killed off pretty early and so it just gets darker from there. It’s really dark for a Nintendo game.

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: And we’ll talk a little bit more about that later on in the cast, but what makes the story interesting besides the hookups? Uh, oh you go ahead!

Kaitlin: No, no, you go.

Javy: I was just going to say I like how free form it is because when you have something like Mass Effect or in any other Bioware game, those are very cinematic and you have choices (typically morality choices between good and evil or right and wrong or I guess in the case of Mass Effect even though that’s more of a morally gray area, paragon and renegade) but it’s basically very narrow. You have two tunnels running next to each other and you can go down either of them. And there are major changes within each tunnel except near the end they sort of come together in this one conclusion that disappointed a lot of people—at least Mass Effect did.

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: But Fire Emblem is—there’s just a bunch of tunnels. And you can mess around with the tunnels, you can mess around with the pipes, I guess, and connect them to one another. That’s what I find interesting about it.

Kaitlin: Yeah, I love that you can really craft exactly how your character is and who they relate with and their entire world. Like, you’re not confined to what the writers necessarily thought you would do with these characters—like you can really create it however you want.

Javy: Yeah.

Kaitlin: The reason I’m so excited about my second playthrough is to make my main character *so* much more of a bitch than she was…

[both laugh]

Kaitlin: Just to see what kind of game it becomes when I follow more of a Chaotic Neutral alignment versus like a True Good.

Javy: That’s kind of, that’s exactly what I did when I played my second…no, it was my third character. I didn’t want to be evil, but I wanted someone who was selfish and who would sacrifice everything and get the job done, so I guess sort of comparable to Renegade Shepard, but I, uh, actually sacrificed some of the kids in battle because that’s what I thought this person would do. And I really liked that Intelligent Systems—who designed the game—invites you to be a storyteller. They give you more control over who these characters are, who lives or dies, the epilogues—um, I really like that final choice about the Fell Dragon. Whether you quote-unquote sacrifice yourself to kill the Fell Dragon or if you just put it back to sleep if you’re just like “this is not my problem!” Future generations can deal with it. And I really like that because I felt like this is something…the latter choice is something this particular character would do—the quote-unquote bitch character.

Kaitlin: I had a really intense moment with that question at the end because…can I…I might spoil…

Javy: I mean, we’re already in the spoiler territory.

Kaitlin: Yeah, so when it asked—I played as a woman, obviously—when it asked if Chrom gets to land the final blow, the little sister in me of like a bazillion brothers was like “No! He doesn’t get to land the final blow!” And so I almost did it out of ego and then I was like “oh, I almost killed myself, okayyy.” That’s where ego gets you.

[both laugh]

Kaitlin: But yeah, it was really intense and then seeing afterward everyone come and give you their messages of support and love…and…you really forge these relationships that take on different forms and mean different things.

Javy: Yeah, you really do feel attached to these characters more than you would characters in other games. And I think part of that lies at least with the pairing slash hookup , whatever you want to call it when you get to see love actually bloom on the battlefield between these characters, and then sometimes, y’know, either because you fuck up or because you want to orchestrate these horrible, terrible, heartbreaking events where it all falls apart. And I like that the game is confident enough to let you fill in the blanks because I saw someone…I think it was Marcus over at Press2Reset wrote about that we don’t see the grief when like Chrom’s wife dies or something, we don’t really see the grief. And I don’t really think that’s important because this game is progressing—you see the bits that matter. You see the parts of their relationships that matter, we see the actual battlefield sequences, when they’re at camp and what not. So I think for this game to focus on that instead of devoting resources to twenty scenes of the same character grieving over another character, I think that’s more important. I think it works because we don’t waste resources on that.

Kaitlin: Yeah, and how we move on is ultimately more interesting to me than how we mourn anyway. And it’s not that they weren’t capable of writing it because if you develop Tharja and Nowi’s relationship, it’s all about Nowi coming to terms with the loss of her parents, and it’s done beautifully and is so heartbreaking but like so optimistic and loving, so they could do it—they just obviously chose not to. And I think it’s totally to the benefit of the game, like you said.

Javy: Yeah, I really do like that combination of optimism and how dark it is. Most games can’t pull that off; they either go too far in on direction or y’know they don’t tackle it at all and it’s just sort of a gray universe. But this one…this one is really dark at times, but there’s still that happy ending. Even if you’re like the most horrible person imaginable as long as not everybody dies, it’s still…it’s still not a happily ever after but it’s an honest ending, I guess.

Kaitlin: Yeah, I think a good word for it is “honest” in how it portrays its relationships between characters. And for me honestly I think that was the biggest part because earlier you asked “what did it have to offer?” And I’m gonna be honest there is a couple of times where I skipped the storyline, where you could just press “skip,” because I didn’t care! I wanted to—because I love strategy games and I love that playstyle so I was just like “you’re getting in the way of me playing,” and so it took me a while to realize I had missed some serious shit. I had to like backtrack and go to old save files and fill in the blanks, but it just…there’s just so much in the game that’s so fun. I love that playing on the battlefield is actually what makes your characters grow stronger. It’s not just narrative choices where you can make them…it’s actually what you do with them, and it’s logical and makes sense: of course if you fight together on the battlefield you’re going to become super close and intimate.

Javy: Yeah, I uh like that—and I know a lot of people are going to disagree with this—I like that the big picture story isn’t important. Partially just because it’s generic fantasy: good versus evil. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when you have a much more interesting game going on with the strategy and with wanting to see these characters get together, you’re going to pay more attention to that.

Kaitlin: Yeah, absolutely, and I was way more invested in making all my woman characters become best friends than I was in anything else.

Javy: That’s awesome. So who was your fighting squad?

Kaitlin: Okay, so, early on, I discovered that I couldn’t decide who I wanted to play with and then I discovered I could play with all women, so that’s what I decided to do, to play with all women. And so, my favorite was my main character, Tharja…because Tharja…

Javy: BecauseTharja is the best.

Kaitlin: Yeah. Cordelia, who…I couldn’t believe I couldn’t marry Cordelia because…she’s the best.

Javy: [laughs] She is the best. They’re all the best.

Kaitlin: They’re all the best.I liked Anna a lot too—the merchant.

Javy: Yeah, the merchant.

Kaitlin: Mhm. I made her into a healer too because I quickly got rid of Lissa and Maribelle…

Javy: Oh my god.

[Both laugh]

Kaitlin: They’re so useless!

Javy: Yeah, like all the noble women you start out with, so like Suima and then Maribelle and I forgot her name, Chrom’s sister…they’re just…to me, at least, they’re irritating.

Kaitlin: They are.

Javy: Because they’re stereotypes. They don’t want to get their hands dirty and fight, and they don’t really feel that particularly interesting. They feel more like plot devices than characters; I feel like Suima is there just to be Chrom’s love interest. And if you don’t do anything with her, which I did several times, nothing happens. She’s just there on the sidelines.

Kaitlin: Yeah, as soon as I met Suima I realized she was my number one threat to Chrom.

[Javy laughs]

Kaitlin: She was one of the few women characters I didn’t develop. I was like “no, she’s going to get my prince and that’s not going to happen.” So actually this playthrough I’m making her and my main character become super close because I feel really bad for how I treated her!

Javy: That’s amazing.

Kaitlin: I know, so I’m giving Suima a second chance.

Javy: So let’s talk a little bit more about characters, like main characters. This is something that interests me about this series because if you read any of the reviews they’re all saying “Well this is interesting because while Chrom…because your little avatar character isn’t the main character, Chrom is” and a bunch of reviews said that. The one for the Escapist said that, the one for, I think IGN, and to me it wasn’t ever really about Chrom or necessarily my main character. During my first playthrough I didn’t really feel like there was a main character. It was about the group. And then in my second playthrough…uh did you ever meet Donnel, the hick with the bucket on his head?

Kaitlin: Yeah, and you can save him? Yeah.

Javy: Yeah, you can save him and he becomes so powerful if you like grind with him, like if you take the time to nurture and show him how to kill people in all these different ways, he becomes so overpowered that he breaks the game. He can kill anything.

Kaitlin: Wow.

Javy: Nothing can ever hurt him.

Kaitlin: That’s incredible.

Javy: Yeah. On my second playthrough, he became the hero. He supplanted both Chrom and my main character as the hero of the story, and that goes along with the free-form storytelling. The developers are confident enough to hand you the tools; it’s pretty much fifty-fifty, they give you some tools and say “okay, make your own story” within these confines.

Kaitlin: I think that’s absolutely true ‘cause I know my first playthrough it was Chrom and..I did call my main character Kaitlin, so it was very heavily Chrom and Kaitlin-based. But I can see the potential in there and that’s really what I’m looking forward to doing with my second playthrough is not focusing so much on my playable character and seeing what else I can do with everybody else.

Javy: Yeah, I think the experimentation is something that makes the game highly replayable.

Kaitlin: Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t even finished it—I maybe beat it 10 hours ago and I’m already starting my next one.

Javy: Right? You just can’t get it out of your head.

Kaitlin: Exactly. I developed a really good strategy where I had my main team, who I referred to as the X-Men, and then their little hit squad, which I referred to as X-Force because Cyclops develops his kill squad The X-Force, and so my kill squad was Cordelia, Sully, and Panne, and they would just go and kill everybody—because they could move so far and do so much damage together. They were my core group.

Javy: That’s pretty awesome. I haven’t developed like a squad yet. I don’t ever really focus on a cast of characters. It’s really weird, I’ll usually attach myself to one or two people and say “everyone surrounding these two characters are interesting but I’m going to focus on these two characters.” Not necessarily in a romance way because sometimes the two characters aren’t in a relationship together; I just like watching their arcs develop and toying around with their stories. Speaking of relationships, one of things I noticed when I went back and was reading reviews—y’know, I was just going through Metacritic and opening links from there—and no one ever really mentioned like how you can only have heterosexual relationships in the game. Like you’re pretty much forced to have those relationships. You can’t have women with women or men with men.

Kaitlin: It’s so mind-boggling because I was playing under the assumption that I could, so for a long time I had been trying to, I think it was Kaitlin and…trying to get my main character and Anna together, and when I realized they didn’t have a level S I was just like “What? This isn’t fair.” It’s just strange that none of the reviews mentioned that when it was just something I assumed would be in there. But why would I assumed that? It was Nintendo. Of course it wouldn’t be in there.

Javy: See, that’s really interesting because I wrote a review of it and…it was a while ago. And I can’t remember it, I’ve tried to check up on the review, tried to read the review and see if I had mentioned that you can only have heterosexual relationships, because I *think* I might have mentioned it in a parenthesis, but even then, looking at it now it’s clear that it’s not a big deal around this time last year in these reviews—at least to reviewers—to the point that they don’t mention it in reviews. So after Tomodachi Life, y’know where everyone was really angry about that, why do you think that is? And you might have answered this with the Nintendo bit; do you think this is Nintendo so they’re clearly not going to go for that, so the automatic assumption is that this is going to be heterosexual relationships because Nintendo doesn’t want that controversy?

Kaitlin: I…perhaps. I’m not super familiar with a lot of Nintendo’s business practices but just from what I can understand it seems like, to fall into that illogical or wrong thinking that anything that’s not heterosexual is controversial or damaging for kids and so Nintendo really markets itself as “for kids,” right? And so it’s why my grade school and things like that wouldn’t let us talk about same sex marriage and stuff like that because it’s not “kids’ stuff.” But it’s…it’s people stuff. And so I think that probably has a huge part to do with it, because I mean if The Sims and Bioware and Dragon Age, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have been doing this, then there’s no reason they couldn’t except for their false “kid friendly” brand.

Javy: Yeah, and there’s also the implication that heterosexual is the default. And I kind of wish I had written a little bit more about that, but I was still trying to figure out how to write reviews back then, but it’s, yeah, it’s kind of mind boggling they don’t allow that since this game is so clearly focused on building relationships. At the same time I’ve heard some defenses, and it’s what I like to call the Game of Thrones defense, where “Well, that didn’t happen back then…back in the fantastic Middle Ages where there were dragons and shit.”

Kaitlin: And it’s just wrong! Yeah, and it can be so damaging too. I remember that Samantha Allen had written this beautiful essay about how so many young queer kids are finding themselves through video games and being able to explore. Like, even for me—I’m 26—and being able to explore relationships with women in this game was a big part of me coming to accept myself as bisexual and things like that. And so including that in games for kids isn’t damaging, it’s so helpful, and I think that’s why it’s for me—it was almost a dealbreaker for the game when I found out. I almost put it down. But its clutches were too deep.

Javy: Yeah, and I think that’s kind of why people aren’t…and I don’t want to say aren’t making a fuss about it because I’ve seen criticism about it and it’s totally viable criticism, but the game’s almost so charming that you don’t want to be mad at it even though it’s fucking up. Uh, it’s that kind of game.

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: So you kind of forgive it even though you’re like “Well, this sucks,” because I too would have liked to see my characters get together with other characters and it wasn’t possible. Like, I wanted, I think it was my third male lead to get together with Chrom, but all they could be was bros. It was tragic that they could only be bros…

[Both laugh]

Javy: because there was definitely some sexual tension there. And there are scenes of sexual tension in the game between same sex cast members.

Kaitlin: There are! That was something that kind of almost unsettled me a little bit was the tension between Tharja and the woman main character, because Tharja has this almost unhealthy obsession with her and it’s one of the only woman on woman love infatuations that you saw in the game…and it was Tharja being overly creepy and pushing her boundaries, and I didn’t really like what this was saying here.

Javy: What was she doing again? She would just like creep over the main character while she was sleeping or go through her belongings?

Kaitlin: I think she was trying to make potions to make her fall in love with her? Yeah, it was really problematic. And that broke my heart a little bit because I love Tharja; she’s such a good character, and I’m just sad she got painted with that stereotypical brush.

Javy: Yeah, they’ve done some problematic things outside of the game with her character too. Did you ever see that statue…or the figurine of her…the, uh, officially licensed product?

Kaitlin: No.

Javy: Oh, well she’s basically bending over a rock or stone and you can see her ass.

Kaitlin: NO.

Javy: Yeah, yeah.

Kaitlin: Do I wanna know?

Javy: I mean, I’m just kind of confused why Nintendo thinks “okay, this isn’t problematic but non-heterosexual relationships are. This could hurt our brand,” or whatever the line of thinking is there. But yeah, it’s an officially licensed product and there was an article on it on Kotaku where they talked about it. I think it might have been Patricia or Kirk who talked about it. It’s just really interesting, and I want to know the thought process behind it all; I’m sure it’s corporate decisions because I want to believe that developers wanted those relationships in there, but y’know you had the quote-unquote family friendly concern.

Kaitlin: It’s weird to make the statute of Tharja that sexualized when she’s not super-sexualized in the game compared to somebody like Panne who when she transforms goes into downward dog and—

Javy: [laughs] I hadn’t even thought about that! All I remember is her doing that really cool cartwheel, but now that you that, oh wow, yeah.

Kaitlin: It bothered me every time because I loved Panne and I thought she was one of the most interesting characters except for this like one moment where I’m like “godammit” and uncomfortable if people saw me playing it on the bus.

Javy: I really like how the backgrounds of those characters, like Panne, contribute to the story in small ways. Like, getting back to my…not evil, well kind of evil/selfish character who sacrificed people on the battlefield to gain a tactical advantage, one of the people she did that to was Panne, who’s the last of her race! And I didn’t realize that I had done that until afterward and it was such a shocking moment. I honestly thought about resetting the game but decided to press on because of how powerful that moment was. I was actually feeling some guilt.

Kaitlin: Yeah, and what’s interesting about that guilt is that it’s very much your own guilt. It wasn’t a forced moment; you do that, you’re the monster.

Javy: Oh yeah, like point the gun at someone’s face and the game forces you to shoot them. This is you—this is all you. It’s very impressive that a game with probably a miniscule budget compared to a modern Bioware game can do that.

Kaitlin: I was thinking too, one of my favorite…because I spent a really long time making sure that all my women characters developed really good friendships, and one of my favorites was the one with Panne and Cordelia because it’s about…because Panne doesn’t like Cordelia at first, she likes her Pegasus, so Panne becomes friends with her Pegasus first and it’s like “the Pegasus tells me you’re okay” and so they develop this beautiful, trusting relationship because of that. And I just thought it was so interesting and different from a lot of the other women relationships in the game.

Javy: That is interesting, yeah, Nowi—the dragon girl—also has an arc, and I can’t remember if it’s one of the dragon riders or what, and they have a bond that’s made mostly between Nowi and the dragon. It’s interesting that they can pair these characters up—and this is a huge cast of characters, like what? 35, maybe 40.

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: And they all have interactions. You can make them interact with pretty much every character except for a handful of them, like Sumia can only interact with three people.

Kaitlin: Yeah, I think Anna can only interact with two people, I think, too.

Javy: Yeah, but for like the majority of them, I won’t say that it’s like Oscar level writing but to have competent writing that makes these relationships believable between two people amongst this huge cast—that’s a feat. That’s really impressive. That’s kind of more impressive, and I know we keep talking about Bioware but that’s what I compare the game to because it tries so much for the same thing and it’s super impressive to me just how much Intelligent Systems just does a better job, I think.

Kaitlin: I agree, and I think the comparison to Bioware games is apt because when people talk about Mass Effect or Dragon Age they don’t really really….the stories they talk about are of characters and the people that they loved and formed bonds with, so I think that’s why we keep going back—just to defend our constant bringing up of Bioware.

[Both laugh]

Javy: Yeah. Some reader is just gonna shake their head at this. “Fucking Bioware discussions. I didn’t come here for this.” Yeah. Sorry, reader.

Kaitlin: Sorry. [pause] So I had a couple of ‘cause for the most part most of my relationships I developed I had a goal in mind, like I was very meticulous about who I bonded with who. But sometimes I would play without my glasses and I couldn’t tell some of the people apart so for the longest time I thought Lon Qu and Chrom were the same person, so I kept putting them with my main character. And I was like “this is how she got so far with Lon Qu even though she was married to Chrom.”

Javy: Oh, not because it was like some saucy…

[Both chuckle]

Kaitlin: Nope. Just because I didn’t have my glasses on and couldn’t tell the boys apart.

Javy: Lon Qu is probably my favorite character to actually uh just pair up with different people, not even relationships or romance-wise, just because he’s so awkward especially with every single woman and it’s hilarious. My favorite pairing in the game is actually Sully and Lon Qu just because it seems like they’re made for one another. And I think the writers who wrote their pairing knew that.

Kaitlin: Tell me about it because I haven’t gotten them yet and I want to know.

Javy: Kaitlin, I can only describe it as super awkward—but fittingly awkward. Sully is like super “Fight me! Fight me! I want you to fight me. What the fuck are you doing? Stop being a wuss. Touch me. Fight me. You with the sword, me with the spear, c’mon!” And it’s basically four different versions of that where Lon Qu’s just sort of like “Okay, I’m less nervous…” and then he proposes to her out of nowhere just because he can stand next to her.

[Kaitlin laughs]

Kaitlin: Such a big deal.

Javy: Yeah, it is a big deal for him because that’s his whole character for some reason is that he’s just afraid of women. For some reason.

Kaitlin: It’s true! And it’s never given any explanation or backstory. It’s just…even with Nowi, her sheer optimism is at least countered with the fact that she’s reconciling that she’s all alone and she’s lost her parents, but Lon Qu is just like “Nope. Awkward. Can’t do it.”

Javy: Yeah, and that’s something I’ve kind of seen in anime too, I guess, like the limited anime I’ve watched is that you’ll almost always have this dude character who has the same interactions with women, just terrified of them. So I guess it could be part of that? The same culture or tradition that produces that, maybe, but I don’t know. It’s also pretty funny to have this huge badass who’s just terrified of—just the image of it—every single woman he knows. Even like Chrom’s sister…whatever her name is…

Kaitlin: Lissa?

Javy: Yeah, Lissa. Just stuff like that. Just kids, he’s still scared of them, and it’s entertaining, and it’s such a simple thing but it works throughout the game. When you get to the relationship part of Fire Emblem, that pretty much sums it up for me: simple stuff that works.

Kaitlin: I like Lon Qu because he looks like your stereotypical hero. He’s good with a sword, but he just can’t get the love interest because he can’t talk to her, so it kind of subverts…he’s the more loveable Chrom, is how I view it. And not just because I kept confusing them without my glasses.

[Javy laughs]

Javy: And that’s also why he’s a good match for Sully, who’s actually probably…I don’t know, I don’t want to say this definitely but she’s definitely one of my favorite characters, like top 3. Just because she’s so brash and out there and gives no fucks about anything. She will tell you what she thinks immediately.

Kaitlin: She’s the most no-nonsense person ever created.

Javy: She’s just so funny how she interacts with everyone, because I feel like she’s yelling. Most of the dialogue is silent, doesn’t have any audio, but every time I see her I feel like she’s yelling like a drill sergeant at everyone—even when she’s like professing love for someone. It’s like “I LOVE YOU. I DON’T WANT TO BUT I DO.”

Kaitlin: Well, that’s kind of what it is with her and Frederick, right? Because her and Frederick are the only other people I married in my first runthrough and that’s basically what it is when they profess their love. It’s like “I realize why I can’t beat you is because I love you” and they’re like angry about it.

Javy: Yeah, they’re angry.

Kaitlin: Yeah, it was one of my favorites. I feel like they’re a great match too because they’re so confused by their love for each other because they view themselves as these diehard soldiers and they can’t see why they can’t fulfil that identity.

Javy: Yeah, I haven’t explored that particular connection but that makes sense for those two. Like I was saying earlier, I think they’ve written it in such a way for most characters it makes sense for character A to fall in love with character B because of what they emphasize EXCEPT oddly enough, I have never really bought into when it’s a woman main character and Chrom.

Kaitlin: Really?

Javy: Yeah, mostly because of the naked stuff. I feel like it’s kind of creepy and there’s not really any connection between them except “oh man, Chrom saw her naked one time and he really has the hots for her.” Like I feel like that is their whole relationship, and I might be misreading it, but that’s what I got from it.

Kaitlin: It feels exactly like an episode of Friends. He accidently sees her naked; she accidently sees him naked, and then they’re like married.

[Both laugh]

Javy: I mean, I guess some relationships happen like that…in the medieval fantasy times when dragons were flying around—

Kaitlin: It’s historically accurate!

Javy: It just struck me as so odd because literally every other character combination makes more sense to me than those two characters, even Suima and Chrom, which..I hate.

Kaitlin: It’s disgusting to you, I know.

Javy: I’m gonna be honest: I tried to King David her and send her to her demise one time…

[both laugh]

Javy: but she’s still there. She’s like one of the five characters that just can’t die.

Kaitlin: That’s amazing. It’s funny too because the very first interaction between Chrom and the main character is him saying he doesn’t think she’s a lady, and she’s like “What the fuck does that mean?” And he’s like “You’re cool!” And she’s like “What does that mean!?” Chrom…is not coherent around the woman main character.

Javy: Chrom is many things. He is not a ladies man, at least in manner.

Kaitlin: No. It makes sense narratively, like within the larger structure of the Fire Emblem world for them to be what they are but…

Javy: Which is unfortunate because that’s least interesting part of the narrative. It’s more about the characters.

Kaitlin: Absolutely. Trying to remember who else I really loved. There’s just so many great characters.

Javy: Yeah, and there aren’t that many duds uh except maybe Ricken. I have sacrificed poor Ricken, I have led poor wizard Ricken to his demise so many times. Maribelle too. Actually, this last time I left Maribelle to a worse fate. I let her marry the archer.

Kaitlin: Virion?

Javy: No no no, what’s his name? The dude. The noble who’s like so full of himself.

Kaitlin: Yeah, Virion!

Javy: Oh yeah, like you said, Virion. I misheard you. Thought you were saying Mirel, like that random spellcastor that they just stick at the beginning of the game.

Kaitlin: With the witch’s hat?

Javy: Yeah. She’s never made it. I haven’t tried to kill her or anything. She just hasn’t ever made it past stage 5. It’s like “ I need bait! You’re good bait!”

Kaitlin: Is it…like a compliment when you try to kill a character? Is it worse not to be killed?

Javy : I don’t even know. It’s…it’s a character by character basis. Let’s say that.

Kaitlin: Mirel is actually someone else I haven’t played with, so I’m going to try and keep her in this second playthrough. I just don’t know if that’s gonna happen.

Javy: She just grates. There are certain characters that just grate on me in the game. Like the kid characters, there are a lot of them that do that. In my third time through, I rescued my main character’s kids and then left everyone else in the time warp because pretty much the main character’s kids and Lucina are the only worthwhile ones. Lucina is so awesome.

Kaitlin: I love Lucina.

Javy: And I was kind of disappointed, but it may still come to pass, when people were talking…y’know how Marth, who’s basically Chrom’s ancestor, was in Super Smash Brothers? So they were talking about how cool it would be for Lucina to show up in the new Smash Brothers. And it looks like that hasn’t happened yet, but that would be really cool. And I could see it happening too with E3…’cause they had a huge focus on women characters

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: Like Hyrule Warriors and stuff like that.  So Kaitlin, before the cast you were telling me about how you had a presentation on, was it gender in games?

Kaitlin: Yeah, it was representation of gender in video games for a grade 7-8 class in Toronto, and it was part of a wider, one month long unit on stereotypes. And so the teacher wanted me to come in and talk about my experiences with gender and games—talk about like major misconceptions with women gamers and things like that. And so I had put up a bunch of character portraits of women from Fire Emblem to show a game that was doing it if not the best, because one of my biggest faults with Fire Emblem is that all of the characters are white and there’s no real racial diversity, and so while it was failing in that aspect, at least it had dynamic and diverse women characters, which a lot of games can’t say. So I had put up a whole bunch of portraits of my favorite characters, and Cordelia was one of them, and I saw this little girl in the front row just light up. They’re all just sitting on the ground and she just jumped up, and she was like “Oh my god! That’s Cordelia! I love Cordelia so much!” And I was like “Yeah, she’s really great isn’t she? What do you love about her?”

Javy: So she had played Fire Emblem?

Kaitlin: Yeah!

Javy: Okay, cool cool.

Kaitlin: They had played like a whole ton of games. They had played Mass Effect, they had already played all the Gears of War, and sometimes the teacher was like “you guys shouldn’t be playing these games.”

Javy: [sad chuckle] Aw.

Kaitlin: And so I asked her “What do you like about Cordelia?” And she said “I like that she’s strong, I like that she has feelings but that doesn’t like make her worse,” because Cordelia’s whole storyline is about how her Pegasus riders die so that she could go help the Shepherds. So it’s a sore spot for Cordelia but she’s still able to laugh and have fun. So, she was like “ I just like that she’s a person…and also that her armor was feasible. Like her armor looked like real armor.”

[Both laugh]

Javy: It wasn’t boob armor.

Kaitlin: Exactly. So I just thought it was so cool that these girls—they were 11, 12—responded to this and saw this, and a couple of the boys in the class were like “oh I didn’t even think about this,” and the girls were like “that’s why I love the game is because I could play with more woman characters than boy characters if I wanted.” And it was so cool to see…and also sad because there’s so few games where girls can have this experience. But it was wonderful that Fire Emblem could do that for her, and she felt like it was a game for her and her friends, that her and her girlfriends could do and act like and they weren’t excluded.

Javy: Yeah, and I think that’s becoming more of a focus in game criticism that’s hopefully like encouraging that sort of thing to happen in AAA games AND indie games, uh, y’know where you have the ability to play as a woman, and often I find it more interesting to play as a woman than as a dude, especially when it comes down to voice-acting. I think that women are better voice actors than men.

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: Especially when you get down to like Mass Effect. It’s just different. I like it when games make an effort to make the experience between genders different; I like in Mass Effect that there is a clear difference between playing as a dude as far as romances go—and even some NPC interactions. There’s one guy in Mass Effect 2 when you’re playing as woman Shepard…he calls you a stripper or something, and you can just get in his face about it and say “whatever, my gun is bigger than yours, fuck off! Just fuck off!” And I like that there are more games that try and do that now and hopefully that becomes more of a thing even though right now we’re bogged down with, uh, ShootDudes 2014, ShootDudes 2015.

Kaitlin: And 2016 is WhiteManFeels

Javy: Yeah, WhiteManFeels. That’s pretty much what The Last of Us is; it’s WhiteManDaddyFeels, the critically acclaimed game of this generation.

Kaitlin: I couldn’t understand it! I believe we’ve talked extensively about this.

[Javy laughs]

Kaitlin: How in the first *five* minutes they fridge a girl for the white dude storyline, and I’m just like “you’ve got to be kidding me” and I quit shortly after because it’s just so bad and over the top…and just shit.

 Javy: Yeah, I think…well, we should probably talk about The Last of Us another time, like have a whole thing built around it. I feel like we could have a good discussion come out of that, ‘cause I have mixed feelings about that game. So, uh, Fire Emblem.

Kaitlin: Fire Emblem. And so with the recent Ubisoft disaster, where they said it was double the resources to include a woman character, and people would be like “Why does it matter? It could be a guy, why does it have to be a woman?” Because I met 10, 11, 12 year old girls where it matters, where it changes their lives, where this one girl’s like “Cordelia showed me that I could this and be all these different things” and that matters in kids’ lives. We need better representation and that’s one of the things I do love about Fire Emblem is that it offers more woman characters for girls to identify with.

Javy: Yeah, and I honestly can’t really think of, again AAA games that allow for that to happen outside of Bioware games, outside of Fire Emblem games. I really can’t. There are games now, the ShootDudes 2014 games that allow you to play as a woman in multiplayer, which I think is kind of cool that they do that, but the campaign is still ArmyDudeFeels. It’s usually not even interesting ArmyDudeFeels, it’s not dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it’s just FOR THE NATION! FOR AMERICA! For god and country and whatever bullshit is interesting to the people they’re trying to appeal to. But yeah, I wish it’s something we’d see more of and I hope we do see more of going forward. But y’know, Ubi has made it clear that they’re not interested in that.

Kaitlin: Yeah.

Javy: Yeah, so yay Fire Emblem!

Kaitlin: Yayyy Fire Emblem!

Javy: And I think that does it for us unless Kaitlin, do you have anything else to add?

Kaitlin: No! That’s it.

Javy: All right, well we’ll talk to you next time…reader. It’s gonna get weird getting used to that, but it’ll be fine.  All right, goodbye everyone!

Kaitlin: Goodbye!